Notes and Editorial Reviews
Concerto for Clarinet, Viola and Chamber Orchestra
Christoffer Sundqvist, Kullervo Kojo (cl); Tommi Aalto (va); Hannu Lintu, Okko Kamu, cond; Finnish RSO
ALBA 314 (SACD: 68: 11)
Here’s a strange and interesting CD if I’ve ever heard one. It begins with Peter Eötvös’s contemporary piece
written for two clarinets, accordion, and strings. But don’t break out your polka records for a comparison; this music is more of the style normally described as “contemporary ambient,” with brief shards of musical motifs drifting, interacting, and creating a mood rather than a work with a form that one can grasp. Ironically, I find it much more palatable than some of the contemporary music I’ve reviewed recently, such as Maxwell Davies’s Symphony No. 1 or the piano music of Judith Lang Zaimont. The first section depicts a hurricane scene in which phone boxes and traffic signs float on the violent winds, yet the music is not as violent as the description suggests. Its fragmentary nature, and reliance on a small group of instruments, results in an atonal yet somehow fascinating musical environment.
This is even truer of the second movement, which is said to represent a recurring dream of the composer in which he floats vertically across a landscape. (If anything, I find some wry, ironic humor in this music despite its building to a surprisingly loud and edgy climax in the middle.) The third movement, a barcarolle, is based on Eötvös’s impression of Venetian gondolas floating on the water. Occasional pizzicato strings flit out of the ensemble and float above the others; there is yet another edgy passage, for strings and accordion, that contrasts with the two clarinets (one high and one low); eventually, close seconds played by the clarinets with just a few violins are heard above a grunting bass line as the movement continues. A fast, busy passage played in rapid triplets then ensues, following which one of the clarinets plays close chromatics with some of the strings while the second clarinet weaves around them.
The last movement, “Petrushka’s Resurrection,” resuscitates the antihero of Stravinsky’s ballet to float above the cruel world and mock it. I am particularly struck by Eötvös’s subtle humor here as well as his equally subtle and deft manipulation of musical fragments and orchestration. I’d say that the music evokes Stravinsky rather than imitates him, and in this evocation Eötvös achieves some of his most remarkable and original moments. Each fragment within this movement dovetails, as if by magic, into the other fragments to create a whole.
Nielsen’s clarinet concerto is the one standard work on this disc, and Christoffer Sundqvist gives an altogether remarkable performance of it. His tone is both well controlled in vibrato as well as containing a beautiful, natural, woody quality, much like the best jazz clarinetists (think of Noone, Shaw, or de Franco). Yet although Hannu Lintu conducts a thoroughly professional, clean reading of the score, I am not as impressed overall by his interpretive qualities as I was by those of Douglas Bostock in the complete collection of Nielsen’s orchestral music on Membran 233378/A-J, which I reviewed in the last issue. Nevertheless, it’s a fine performance, particularly due to Sundqvists’s alternately lyrical and passionate playing. Just listen to the brilliance of his 16th-note playing in the first movement—not only technically excellent, but also with tremendous feeling. And his warmth is clearly evident in the well-phrased Poco Adagio as elsewhere when called upon to provide it. Time and again Sundqvist’s tone, as much as his technique, takes your breath away.
Aulis Sallinen’s clarinet-viola concerto, composed in 2006–07, has somewhat strange and enigmatic notes from the composer. The first movement, subtitled “The Dolphin’s Lament,” refers to two dolphins, a mother and her calf, who strayed into the Baltic Sea and drowned in a fisherman’s net. The second movement, titled “Les Jeux,” refers to playing music as a sort of game. As Sallinen puts it, “Any action based on playing is strange from a biological point of view, as it is not necessary for survival.” Indeed so. The third movement, “Adagio del Toro,” dwells on the cruel dichotomy of bullfighting as a sport.
Musically, Sallinen’s sound world is more tonal than Eötvös’s, the first movement rooted in F and played through much of the first half by solo viola and clarinet with an ominous undercurrent of timpani. When the strings do enter, it is the cellos and basses we hear at first, then the violas with xylophone. Both solo instruments become more agitated; edgy string tremolos are offset by arpeggios played by the glockenspiel. The latter half of the movement is almost calm, as if the animals have resigned themselves to their fate.
“Les Jeux” is a charming piece in a somewhat choppy and uneven meter, set more or less in C. Yet again, Sallinen is careful in his use of instrumental forces, allowing a great deal of exposure to the solo instruments with no attempt to compete with or cover them. There is even the hint of a real melody here in the second theme before rapid 16ths from the strings bring the music back into the realm of the fantastic, this time at an even faster tempo as the opening fragments coalesce into a theme and variants. The key eventually shifts to G, and there’s an almost Mozartian feel to some of the music here.
The “Adagio del Toro” has more of a melancholy cast than a fully tragic feel to it. In the notes, Sallinen makes it clear that his goal was to project the nobility of the bull as much as the suffering he faces in the arena, “forced to fight for its life.” (Quite ironically, I find several similarities in mood here to Alan Ridout’s
Ferdinand the Bull
in Rachel Barton Pine’s outstanding violin recital disc
) Eventually, the swell of the strings comes to overpower the mood of the piece, following which the cries of the clarinet simulate the attack on the bull. Moaning basses reflect the sadness of the animal and his hopeless situation, following which an uptempo passage seems to re-create the mood of the triumphant bullfighter. All in all, this is the most remarkable piece in the trilogy, though all of it is very fine music.
A brief word on the sound: the stereo layer of Alba’s hybrid SACD sonics emerges sharply and clearly from my non-SACD player, proving that you do
have to bathe the recording in aural goo in order to project good sound. Thanks, Alba!
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto is an unusual and uncompromising work. Cast in a single movement, and with a strange orchestra of strings, two horns, two bassoons and side drum, it casts a powerful spell. The opening is pastoral and almost neo-classical in atmosphere, giving no clue to the highly dramatic nature of what is to follow. Conflict is at the heart of much of the music, with repeated and sudden changes of mood. (The booklet notes offer a clue to this, in that Aage Oxenvaad, for whom the work was written, suffered from bipolar disorder.) The musical language, too, ranges very widely, from sweet and gentle harmonies to passages where the clarinet screams wildly in a highly chromatic upper register. The work closes in a kind of calm, though all is not resolved. The work has become a classic but has lost little of its power to surprise and challenge. If you are mainly looking for this remarkable work I feel duty bound to recommend an alternative performance from the many distinguished ones available, that by Martin Fröst on BIS. It is coupled with the concerto by Kalevi Aho, complicating an already difficult choice, as the present performance also has very worthwhile and generous couplings. And it is, in any event, a very fine performance. Christoffer Sundqvist is the principal clarinettist of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and his technical mastery is never in doubt. He is brilliant in the more virtuoso passages, and exquisitely tender where required, as in the introspective unaccompanied passage in the first section of the work, as beautifully played here as I have ever heard it. I don’t think he has quite the range of tone colour as Fröst, and the orchestral contribution is not quite so vivid, but the difference is marginal, and Sundqvist’s performance, taken on its own terms, will not disappoint.
And then there is the rest of the programme. The notes tell us that each of the four movements of Peter Eöstvös’s piece explores different aspects of the subject of levitation. The first movement has street furniture - phone boxes and road signs - flying about in a hurricane, whereas the second evokes a recurring dream the composer has of his own body floating, horizontally, over a landscape. The third movement describes gondolas on - or presumably above - Venetian waterways, and the last has
Petrushka, buoyant, high above the world that has dealt so cruelly with him. Since the notes, and presumably the composer, give so detailed a “programme” it seems logical to comment on it. In fact, there is not much in the way of contrast in this work. Each movement is a kind of mood painting, with no themes as such, but fragments, motifs, mostly without any discernible pulse. If there were no gaps between the movements I’m not sure that I should know which one I was in, at least, not for the first few hearings. Thus the first-movement conjures up the gentlest, most beguiling hurricane you could imagine, and you will listen in vain, in the third movement “barcarola”, for any suggestion of the characteristic rhythm that normally goes with the name. The writing for the three solo instruments - two clarinets and accordion - is completely without show or bravado. All this does not stop this piece creating a powerful impression. The sounds the composer finds within the ensemble are exquisite and, for the most part, astonishingly tranquil, restful, tender and subtle. Maybe it’s another of those pieces that one would appreciate more, or at any rate no less, if the composer gave no information about it. I enjoyed it enormously the first time I heard it, and it positively compels the listener to return to it.
Getting to know the music of Aulis Sallinen - I would recommend the opera
The King Goes Forth To France (Ondine) or any of the symphonies in the admirable CPO series - is an ongoing pleasure that continues with the double concerto on this disc. Its three movements deal with issues related to man’s relationship with animals. The first is a gentle lament for two dolphins drowned in a fisherman’s net in the Baltic Sea, and the third pays homage to the noble bull destined to die in the arena. Only the middle movement, “Les Jeux”, which deals with games, seems to stretch the theme somewhat, the parallels between animals and humans appearing to extend no further than the fact that playing of any kind is unimportant for the survival of a species. The work opens with a duet, accompanied only by timpani, for the two soloists. Other instruments are added gradually, and the movement progresses, via a series of ravishing sounds, to create an unforgettable atmosphere of gentle sadness and regret. Anger at man’s treatment of animals appears in the final movement only in one or two rare passages of display for the soloists. Otherwise this is an expression of deep sorrow that we should be capable of such things. The middle movement is a rapid, colourful scherzo, brilliant and witty, beautifully written for the whole ensemble. The programme is revealed by the composer in the booklet note, with almost no reference to the music. At least the message is a simple one - no complex theorising, nor, thank goodness, any attempt to transform the shape of a dolphin into a musical cipher! And the music itself is at once challenging yet easy enough on the ear to be enjoyed even at first acquaintance, so commentary is scarcely necessary. Even so - and once again - there is no doubt in my mind that the work can be enjoyed just as much by a listener unaware of the message behind it.
This is a beautifully recorded CD, and the performances from all concerned are exemplary. The side-drum player in the Nielsen is named in the booklet, but not - a serious omission - the accordionist in the Eötvös. Sallinen provides the short commentary on his own work, whereas the informative notes on the other two pieces are by Jouni Kaipainen. All the notes are translated into English by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, whom many readers will know as a distinguished composer in his own right, especially of choral music.
-- William Hedley, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Clarinet, FS 129/Op. 57 by Carl Nielsen
Christoffer Sundqvist (Clarinet)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1928; Denmark
Levitation by Peter Eötvös
Christoffer Sundqvist (Clarinet),
Kullervo Kojo (Clarinet)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 21st Century
Concerto for Clarinet and Viola, Op. 91 by Aulis Sallinen
Christoffer Sundqvist (Clarinet),
Tommi Aalto (Viola)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: 21st Century
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